Sep 01

Summer Break Pt.2: Kyoto

by in Books, Food, Teaching, Travel

Day4Japan345The nice feature in splitting this trip into two blog entries (aside from claiming to already be halfway done) is that, in visiting two major and historic cities, it was almost like having two uniquely different and separate vacations. One of the most memorable parts was certainly the ride linking the two via the Shinkansen Super Express high-speed train while passing right by Mt. Fuji.

On the 2-hour journey I was able to read a terrific article Kim and Gary printed out from GQ about Kim Jong-Il’s personal chef, Kenji Fujimoto. The article, Dear Leader Dreams of Sushi, describes the bizarre world of the late North Korean ruler from the inside from a rare survivor, and in fascinating detail.

If my time on the Korean peninsula has taught me anything about the behavior of the people who live here, it is that if it is strange, unbelievable, and seemingly defies all logic, it is probably going on somewhere on either side of the 38th parallel at any given time. A new book I recently picked up for a friend called “The Geography of Thought” will hopefully help explain why some of what Westerners call “common sense” is not at all common throughout Asia. The rest of the activity to the North, however, can certainly be attributed to the cult of personality maxim enumerated so well by Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The rest of the quote, “Great men are almost always bad men,” is interesting, too, and is perhaps a good topic to address in another post entirely.Day4Japan307a

The train ride to Kyoto, coupled with a hot black coffee and salmon ciabatta breakfast sandwich from the amazing gourmet food market inside Tokyo Station, were the perfect way to relax a bit, take in some of the countryside, and go over the itinerary Gary put together for my two days in the former imperial capital of Japan. Train tickets in Japan are quite expensive compared to Korea and the Shinkansen is (surprisingly) not as fast as the 300 km/h KTX. However, the entire system seems to run nation-wide with a pride and on-time precision that is nothing short of amazing.

The few sites of note on my list for Kyoto included a visit to Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavilion), a stroll down the nearby Philosopher’sPath, and a stop in the famous Geisha district in Gion along Hanami-koji Street. This advanced scouting from Gary proved to be an invaluable lesson on the value of proper planning and research. I realized on this trip that you can only see so many shrines, temples, and pagodas before they all start to look alike. While at Kyoto Station I also realized that it is sometimes perfectly acceptable to be a tourist and take advantage of help from the experts.  Having an advisor at the tourism information center (inside the Kyoto train station) map out the buses and best routes to take, as well as having her help me find the exact location of my hotel, proved to be well worth it. The 10 minutes I spent there saved me countless hours of searching and embarrassed indecision and really set me off to explore the city with the confidence of a seasoned traveler.

(Please click on each individual image to view full size or as a slideshow)

The rest of my time in Kyoto was amazing and unforgettable. While still a relatively large city, the flow, feel, and history of the area made for a nice contrast to my time in Tokyo. The more touristy first day in Kyoto was filled with a great blend of history, religion, and architecture, yet it provided me with yet another invaluable lesson in traveling abroad; leave blank spaces in your itinerary! It is easy to get caught up in all the things you want (or feel compelled) to see from all the tour books and travel shows. However, it is also important to remember that you are on vacation, and that a quiet afternoon reading a book or writing a postcard over coffee can be far more enjoyable than repeating the same busy routine day after day. In fact, isn’t that why we go on vacations?

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

This quote has popped up a lot in my discussions recently and I didn’t realize that it can actually be attributed to Woody Allen. I am in no way suggesting going on a big trip and having no plans at all. I merely feel that my most recent trips have been far more enjoyable because I was able to blend a bit planning and preparation with a flexible and open-minded attitude that allowed for improvisation, spontaneity, and time spent simply “being.” The few hours I spent at a (Seattle-based) Kyoto coffee shop gave me a great chance to truly relax and reflect of my gratitude and to focus on present moment awareness. The feeling I had watching the local people come and go and just taking it all in has proved to be the lasting memory of the whole trip. Moving to Korea was a huge decision and visiting Japan had always been a lifelong dream. Taking the time to slow down and just enjoy the reality of it all was not only an important step the process, but is in actuality a very simple key to a more fulfilling life.

Another part of the trip that proved to be fun was the decision to stay in a traditional Japanese inn called a “Ryokan.” Having saved quite a bit of money staying with friends in Tokyo for two nights, I decided to spend a little bit extra than I normally would have to stay experience the flip-side to my capsule hotel experience. Again using Agoda, I was able to find a room at a nice inn near Kyoto Station for a little less than $100. The only downside to using this site has been that in order to get the low listed prices, you have to agree to non-refundable reservations. While it can be helpful in determining the overall vacancies of any particular destination and can spare you getting shut out, the trade-off is giving up some of the above-mentioned flexibility for price. The lodging experience ultimately proved to be highly unique, albeit one that put my patience and positive vacation vibe to the test. Day4Japan414

The grounds, room, and other facilities were immaculate in every way  and every detail was thoughtfully considered. Having traditional Japanese tea after another great scrub and soak, on the bedding of the floor of my room, while dressed in the provided Yakata robe, was an immersive cultural experience well worth the extra cost of the room.

However, perhaps beyond the control of the staff, was an emergency, late-night road construction going on until 3 am right outside my window. After a few trips down to the front dest to inquire (complain) about all the noise, I finally turned to my Lonely Planet phrase book and found the Japanese word for refund, which is “haraimodoshi,” (払い戻し). Not only did this clearly outline my frustration and disappointment at the digging activity ruining my otherwise peaceful stay, it quickly got the construction halted once and for all. The following morning at checkout, the entire staff was extremely nervous and apologetic as they read to me a prepared (add sweetly rehearsed) statement in English explaining that my booking would be cancelled through Agoda and the room charges reversed.  Given the fact that my phrase book was purchased (used) in Seoul for less than 5 bucks, it more than paid for itself in just one usage – and for just one word!

The remainder of the trip was pleasant, relaxing, and the perfect compliment to the vibrant energy and overwhelming throngs of humanity everywhere you go in Tokyo. I caught one last train direct from Kyoto Station (which itself could be explored for hours alone) to Kansai International Airport (KIX) in Osaka. In the future I would probably arrange to both arrive and depart from here instead and avoid the customs and immigration lines and congestion at Tokyo Narita (NRT). While I left blistered, sun-roasted, and exhausted, I did come in well under budget and can’t remember a more enjoyable,  fascinating, and transformative vacation.

While the idea for the Rock Traveler goes back to my grad school days at Antioch back in the late 90′s, I feel in many ways my identity as a traveler, writer, and true world citizen was born, fully-formed during five amazing days in the land of the rising sun.  どうもありがとう  - Dōmo arigatō


Summer Break: Japan from Matthew M. Vacca on Vimeo.

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2 Responses to “Summer Break Pt.2: Kyoto”

  1. From Galen:

    Your words are inspiring and impressive. I am so happy you were finally able to fulfill a lifelong dream! Thanks for taking us along through your stories and photos! Domo arigato gozaimasu!

    Posted on September 12, 2013 at 11:40 AM #
    • From The Rock Traveler:

      You are welcome! Thank YOU so much for checking out the site and for your thoughtful feedback. It is so precious to me as I have been writing away for two years now simply for my own enjoyment of the whole process. The famous Andy Warhol quote about 15 minutes of fame can now be amended to “in the future, everyone will have a blog.”

      It has turned into much more as I am beginning to find a voice and realize the value of journalizing your life a bit so you can go back and see that actual growth (and enjoyment) are taking place, too. If I can inspire others to find their path, too, then that it true success.

      Posted on September 14, 2013 at 12:03 PM #

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